At the Centre of Everything…

there has always been Hope


Friend’ is one of those words that are appallingly overused these days.

In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, with its ludicrous misuse on Facebook (“Become friends with a total stranger!”) it is a word that has become so done to death that it is coming close to meaning nothing at all.  I doubt that anyone has more than half-a-dozen people that they can call real friends. Certainly no one has five hundred!

I’m lucky to have perhaps five true friends in my life, as opposed to acquaintances.  I’ve plenty of them!

One real friend is Dr. Michael Coughlan of County Galway.

I’ve known Dr. Coughlan now for some ten years.  He became my GP when I moved from Dublin to Oranmore.

Over the years we went, somehow, from being doctor and patient to the stage where Michael and his wonderful wife Rosemary (well, she shares my taste in books, so that was a good start) became two of the best friends I ever had.

I can tell you the bare facts about him; but facts are only the dry summing-up of a man’s life.  Facts will never show you the sheer warmth of a person.  Facts will never explain to you how heavily I relied on Michael to see me through some dark months in my life.

Retired now, he is an ex-president of the Irish College of General Practitioners.  He served as a general practitioner in Galway for forty years.  He was one of the founding members of the Irish College of Irish Practitioners in 1984, and has held positions there that include Treasurer, Secretary, Vice-Chairman, Chairman and President.

Now all of those are just dry facts.

They don’t tell you that he has a fascination for the cultural links between Spain and Ireland in the 16th Century, or that he has a BA in Spanish.  They don’t tell you that he is a mean pianist or that medicine almost lost him to his first love, which was music, after he was offered a scholarship to the Royal Irish Academy.

They’re just facts.  Big deal; those dry statistics will never show you how great it is to drop in on himself and Rosemary and find yourself in a conversation that on any given day will range from genetics to movies to politics and to…uh, the ghastly game of golf.

Well, I never said he was perfect! And I’m pretty sure that Rosemary will concur with me on the golf aspect of his hobbies.

Dr. Coughlan is a guy who grabs life; and since I’ve become involved with Hand in Hand he has taken a huge interest in what we are doing as well.  I’ve been writing a fair bit here about Hand in Hand as seen by ourselves on the inside and it is nice to have someone who has come across it in a different way.

So I felt it was time to ask him a few questions.

Here is some of what he had to say:

“It’s hard to believe that I’m looking back over four decades of my working life…Well, I’ve had to learn to cope with a broad spectrum of feelings and emotions.

On the one hand, there has been sadness, outrage, anger, frustration and sometimes there has even been despair.

“On the other hand there has been acceptance, satisfaction, expectation, joy and hope; at the centre of everything there has always been hope.  Hope

“There is always hope.  Hope is the vital force that propels us and leads us to progress and, very often, to recovery where childhood cancer is concerned.”

I asked Michael if he could give me some examples.  After a moment he said:

“I remember Padraig, a typical mischievous lad who developed leukaemia. 

“I watched his precious life drain away as his frail body battled with the aggressive cancer cells inside it.  I shared the frustrations and disappointments of his loving parents as successive medical treatments failed.  But I refused to despair, or let them despair and regularly prescribed large doses of hope.

“Then came the bone marrow transplant in Edinburgh.

“That six-year-old is now a very successful businessman.”

It’s at times like this that it is emphasised for me just how deeply humane a man Dr. Coughlan is.  He continued:

“I remember Cathy with her blonde doll, Barbie. Both she and Barbie got cancer in the kidney. They shared the horrors of sharp needles and endless chemo transfusions.

“They never lost hope.  A lot of joy came when that nasty kidney was removed; and Santa continued to visit her for many years.

“Now he comes with presents for her children.”


Acceptance and Trust

I ask Michael about where we are at the moment.

“The diagnosis of cancer in a child, naturally, has a profound effect on the parents.

“They are plunged into a world of worry; fear; anxiety; anger… and hopelessness.

“It has been my experience that the child’s worldview of the dreaded diagnosis is much more benign.  They are protected by innocence, and perhaps by ignorance of the implications and possible consequences.

“They don’t tend to view it in terms of gravity or morbidity.  They approach it with an attitude of acceptance and trust.

“They never lose hope.

“That is why I feel that it is very important–as soon as possible, in fact– for parents to organise their emotions, suppressing the less desirable ones and latching on to the positive ones, especially hope; mindful of the tremendous progress that happily has occurred in the treatment and management of childhood cancer.

“But it is difficult for parents and for children to go through it alone.  They need ongoing explanation, encouragement and support.  Medical personnel normally do their best, but their time and resources are limited.

“That is why I am delighted that they are only the front line players in the large team that tackles the variety of problems and challenges encountered in cancer care. 

“It is also why I am very pleased to acknowledge and put my shoulder behind the very significant support and services provided by Hand in Hand.”

I think that after that anything I add would be ridiculously superfluous.  So I’ll just end by saying that when I chose a GP on arriving in Oranmore I could have met no finer doctor or man than Michael Coughlan.

And at a time in my life when hope was in short supply…well, he gave it to me.